Above the 49: NCAA hockey on the horizon in Canada?

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The prevailing topic among hockey fans in Canada is, without question, the looming NHL lockout. But in British Columbia, talk about NCAA Division I hockey has been making some waves recently.

Specifically, the discussion of potentially having the highest level of collegiate hockey find a home in the Metro Vancouver area has been starting to heat up.

That once-thought pipe dream took a step toward becoming reality several weeks ago when it was announced that Burnaby's Simon Fraser University was approved as the first international school in the NCAA.

While SFU currently does not have a varsity hockey team - it has a sports club which competes in the British Columbia Intercollegiate Hockey League, a 6- year-old organization which boasts seven members including, one American team from Eastern Washington University - that hasn't stopped school officials from openly pondering the possibility of the school competing in NCAA Division I hockey sometime in the near future.

SFU's 17 NCAA varsity sports teams compete in NCAA Division II, meaning they would have to petition to be allowed to play in Division I hockey. There is no Division II hockey available and, as per NCAA regulations, they would not be permitted to play in the lower-tier Division III hockey.

NCAA hockey almost certainly would thrive in a market like Vancouver which is not only unwavering in its support of the NHL's Canucks - they have the longest active consecutive sellout streak in the NHL at 407 games, counting regular season and playoffs - but also has embraced major junior hockey in the form of the WHL's Giants and Junior "A" hockey with a handful of BCHL teams located within the Lower Mainland and Fraser Valley region.

While it would be untrue to suggest that any hockey league based in the area will automatically succeed in terms of gaining instant fan support - the AHL's Abbotsford Heat and the Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) Men's University of British Columbia Thunderbirds have proven to be exceptions to the rule - the high profile of the NCAA combined with the fact the league is seen as a stepping-stone to the NHL for many of the top-end talent playing there would certainly help it garner attention not only among the student population but in the general public as well.

At this past summer's NHL Entry Draft, more than 60 players who were either playing college hockey or had committed to a school, including six from the first round, were selected by NHL clubs.

One of this offseason's most prolific free agents, Justin Schultz, who spurned several suitors to sign with the Edmonton Oilers, also is from the collegiate hockey ranks, having played the past three seasons with the Wisconsin Badgers before opting to turn pro.

If SFU does pursue a varsity hockey team at the Division I level, there will be a bevy of challenges aside from just the logistics of going through the application process as well as the cost attached to starting a program essentially from the ground up.

They would certainly run into opposition from the WHL Giants, who would consider the potential SFU NCAA club as a direct competitor since the two would be actively trying to recruit the same players. They would have to pick to play for one or another but not both. Under current NCAA regulations, any player who suits up in a major junior game is subsequently ineligible to play at the NCAA level.

Finding a suitable venue, barring the unlikelihood of one being built atop Burnaby Mountain, where SFU's main campus resides, also would be a top priority. SFU's hockey club currently plays out of Bill Copeland Arena - one- time home to the BCHL's Burnaby Express, the Junior "A" team which produced Ottawa Senators forward Kyle Turris. Its 2,000-seat capacity would rank it among the smallest venues in all of Division I hockey.

The closest large-capacity venue to SFU's campus is the 15,000-plus seat Pacific Coliseum, former home of the Canucks and current home of the Giants, although given the aforementioned conflict between major junior hockey and the NCAA, that would probably not be a viable option.

But regardless of all the hurdles that SFU would have to clear in order to make NCAA Division I hockey in Canada a reality, pursuing that goal seems like a no- brainer considering what the team would do for the profile of the school as well as the immediate return to be gained from the all-but-guaranteed support and attention it would garner from students, media and the general public.

And if SFU manages to get a hockey program up and running, it seems only a matter of time before other Canadian universities start to follow suit.